Dubai’s bitcoin baby boomers bet large

A man feeds money into a bitcoin ATM in New York. The digital currency has surged in recent weeks, prompting fears of a bubble in the making, but that has not deterred a number of Dubai-based entrepreneurs investing in the digital currency. (Reuters)
Updated 11 December 2017

Dubai’s bitcoin baby boomers bet large

LONDON: The lightbulb clicked in Ibrahim Barbour’s mind last winter.
After watching a YouTube series about global financial markets, the young Dubai professional started researching bitcoin, a phenomenon he had heard about in online forums and passing headlines. The more he learned, the more certain he became that bitcoin was a worthy investment.
“I liked what it had to offer,” said Barbour. “You’re in complete control of what you own, there is a limited supply of it so you can’t just print your way out of it like a government, and its value had been increasing for a while. So I said why not?”
Barbour joined a growing number of people across the Middle East and throughout the world who believe that digital currencies like bitcoin are as good — or better — than cash backed by a central bank.
His investment appears prudent: Since he bought his first coin in February of last year, the value of the digital currency has risen astronomically from $1,000 to more than $16,000 at the end of last week.
The spike in bitcoin prices has set the world of currency investing abuzz, and the Middle East is no exception. While funds across the region seem to be hedging their bets for the moment, a growing number of individuals like Barbour have joined the bitcoin rush, with many trying to hop on the fast-moving train.
Mohammed Alsehli, the founder of Dubai-based investors tech company ArabianChain, was an early adopter, buying his first bitcoins in 2011 when they were valued at just $3.
Like Barbour, Alsehli had grown disillusioned by the way traditional currencies were valued. “Today, currency is just backed by debt, that’s it,” he said.
When, following the financial crisis of 2008, a mysterious person or entity known as Satoshi Nakamoto developed a digital currency backed not by a central bank’s guarantee but by the trust of the user community, Alsehli grew curious.
The bitcoin cycle starts with miners: Individuals use computers with high processing power to execute complex mathematical equations.
Those calculations are used to verify the authenticity of transactions across the bitcoin network. As payment for their services, miners receive their welcome reward: bitcoin, which today is worth ten times more than gold.
Despite its meteoric rise, Alsehli said the technology is still in an early adoption phase, and still resides in the realm of esoterica for most people he speaks to. “If you ask somebody on the street how to buy a bitcoin, they don’t know.”
But new developments, including the first sale of bitcoin futures this weekend, mean that the currency is moving ever further into the mainstream.
In recent weeks, investors led by American hedge funds have been buying up the currency at a rapid rate, sending the prices soaring. Some fear it is a bubble that is doomed to burst. “There is a little bit of a gold rush going on, but it’s also justifiable, especially when it comes to bitcoin,” Alsehli said. While there are a number of cryptocurrencies on the market, bitcoin is the most mature and the most trusted.
Still, a series of digital heists over the years have plagued the currency. Just this week $64 million worth was stolen from a Slovenia-based digital coin exchange. If people start to lose confidence in the currency, sell-offs could send bitcoin prices plunging.
Regional experts said that while the prices of bitcoin may tumble in the short term, the long-run outlook is positive.
“I’m really bullish about bitcoin in the long run, even after this bubble will burst,” said Adam Schneider, a Dubai-based bitcoin expert and founder of the cybersecurity company Kitsune.
A nascent startup digital currency scene has begun to emerge across the Middle East centered around Dubai.
BitOasis, a platform for buying, selling and storing the currency, launched in Dubai in 2014. The company made waves when it announced that it had completed a first funding round in May 2016 with an undisclosed sum raised by investors. While few regional bitcoin startups have seen similar success, there is a buzz in the air.
“It’s everywhere — in any group chat I’m on about entrepreneurship, people are talking about bitcoin,” said Philip Bahoshy, the founder of MAGNiTT, an online community for MENA startups.
But he urged caution, saying that many regulatory questions remain unanswered across the region.
In October, as bitcoin prices started to jump, the UAE Central Bank issued cautionary advice to potential investors.
“Some nations have announced that they are not using bitcoin, and consequently its value sharply plummeted,” said the bank’s governor Mubarak Rashed Al-Mansouri.
Whether the price is up or down on a given day, it seems that bitcoin and similar digital currencies are here to stay. Those in the know are optimistic about the future.
“It is still in its infancy,” said Alsehli. “It’s just a baby — it hasn’t started crawling yet.”


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste
  • While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”